Kamala Wins, But Mike Didn’t Lose


 The VP Debate Didn’t Change the Status Quo, and That’s Good News for Biden/Harris

My hot take headline on the first 2020 presidential debate last week was that “Biden Didn’t Win, But Trump Lost.” Well, in a lot of ways tonight’s vice presidential debate was the mirror image of last week’s “shit show” debate. Where that one was unruly, tonight was noticeably calmer. Where that debate was rivetingly ugly, this one was a little boring and predictable. And in this one, my judgement is that “Harris won, but Pence Didn’t Lose.”

Going into it, I was looking forward to seeing former prosecutor Kamala Harris in action. I had high expectations. I expected her to dive into the traditional VP candidate role with relish, and rip Trump at every opportunity. And I expected that she’d have some strong, pre-planned, throat-cutting riffs prepared to slice and dice the most divisive president in American history down to size. On the other hand, I don’t quite know what to expect from Pence. He’s always been a bland, grey cypher to me. But given Trump’s disastrously combative performance last week, I figured he had a low bar to cross. 

I was neither disappointed nor surprised by the result. I thought they both hit their marks, and had their moments. In no particular order, here’s what I learned tonight:

1)    The first part of the debate was all about the pandemic and the Trump/Pence administration’s response. This was, as you might expect, strong ground for Harris. She came out of the gate swinging, convincingly declaring Trump’s response to the crisis to be a chaotic, duplicitous failure. “You respect the American people when you tell them the truth,” she said. Pow! Pence fought back gamely, hanging his hat on the China travel ban, but he was defending the indefensible, and it showed. Harris had the better of him on COVID. 

2)    That set the tone for Harris’ performance. Overall, over the course of the debate, Kamala’s was consistent, solid and effective, even if she didn’t hit any home runs. Then again, she didn’t need to. Have you seen the presidential race polling in recent days? The numbers seem almost too good to be true. Harris made zero mistakes, landed a handful of good zingers, and prosecuted the case against Trump clearly and effectively. She looked smart, and competent. You could envision her as president. Yes, she bobbed and weaved some on some of the more pointed questions, but with one notable exception (see below) was mostly effective in doing so.

3)    Pence’s debate style and demeanor is the opposite of Trump’s. Even when he was attacking, or talking over moderator Susan Page, he seemed calm and unflappable. “Pence is a SNAKE,” a friend commented on Facebook. He does have beady eyes, I replied. But unlike Trump, I thought he did pretty well for himself. He lied a lot, but he did it with great calmness. When he attacked, he did it without ever raising his voice or showing anger. He has a penchant for making through-the-looking-glass bizarro world doublespeak comments – like early on when he looked at Harris and said, “Senator, stop playing politics with people’s lives!” – but he does it with a practiced confidence. To my mind, he often came across as the Christian school headmaster who was so disappointed by the unruly behavior of disobedient little Kamala. 

4)    When Pence was speaking, Kamala’s facial expressions were impossible to miss. Oh my, her facial expressions! I studied them carefully, and detected four basic Kamala faces, all variations on a theme. I dubbed them the following: (1) Death Stare; (2) You, Sir, Are Insane; (3) That Was a Joke, Right?; and (4) Oh Lord, I Can’t Believe I Have to Listen to this Bullshit. I think it’s safe to say that the lady does not have a debate poker face. 

5)    Also, repeat after me, Biden… Doesn’t… Oppose… Fracking!!!! Hey, Pence, you lying mofo, he loves fracking, damn it. Harris was so forcefully repetitive on this point that I fully expect Uncle Joe to go to Pennsylvania tomorrow to personally frack some natural gas. Thus proving once and for all that he is a man of the people.

6)    Pence’s best moment was when he put Harris on the spot over whether or not Biden and Harris will seek to pack the Supreme Court if elected. Biden avoided this question last week, and Harris dodged it tonight. But Pence smartly refused to let it go, turning towards her and asking directly: will you pack the Supreme Court? Then when she dodged, he repeatedly pointed out she was refusing to answer. There’s a reason for that. The Dem activist base may like the idea, but less than a third of the public supports expanding the number of Supreme Court justices, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll from a few weeks ago. 

7)    OMG, a fly landed on Pence’s head. And then it stayed there for a disconcertingly long time. It saddens me to report that this may well have been the most exciting thing that happened the entire night. “There’s a fly on Pence’s head!!!! This proves he really is Damien, the devil’s spawn, and that we are watching The Omen, Part 12” I suggested to some Facebook Friends. Unsurprisingly, they agreed.

8)    Right at the end of the debate, I had a breakthrough. Yes, it’s true, I broke the Pence code. Watching him finish up I finally realized I was watching a cut rate Ronald Reagan knock off. Same hokey delivery, same “optimistic” see-no-evil pro-American appeals, same head shaking, grandfatherly hyperpartisan wonderment that the Democrats are so hatefully insane. Same unctuous, unconflicted ability to bend reality into a pretzel to fit his preconceptions. Though thankfully, as a friend pointed out, he lacks Reagan’s charisma. 

9)    Bottom line: this race is slipping out of Trump’s grasp. I mean, have you seen the recent polling? Wow, it’s really too bad yesterday wasn’t election day, because Biden would have won in a landslide. There’s still time to change the dynamic, but the clock is ticking and the opportunities are dwindling. And so, while I thought tonight’s back and forth was pretty close, and both sides got some moments to like about their candidate, it was clear nothing happened to change to change substantively the status quo. But a draw translates to a big win for Biden/Harris. 

Sandeep Kaushik
Sandeep Kaushik
Sandeep Kaushik is a political and public affairs consultant in Seattle. In a previous life, he was a staff writer and political columnist at the Stranger, and did a stint as a Washington State correspondent for Time Magazine and for the Boston Globe, back in the olden days when such positions still existed.


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